New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern gave a near flawless performance at her first big press conference. So good that her colleague Trevor Mallard called it a cross between Helen Clark’s policy depth and David Lange’s wit. Newshub’s Patrick Gower declared her “on fire”. 

It was certainly an impressive display. Surrounded by colleagues, fresh from a unanimous vote installing her in her party’s top job, reinforced and validated as Labour’s biggest star and brightest hope, she floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. She was happy to cede the microphone to her new deputy Kelvin Davis, was self-deprecating, humorous and in her sterner, chin-down and lower octave moments, did indeed channel Clark.

As a set piece performance it was all that Labour might have hoped. For Ardern, it was a successful parrying of the best the media could throw at her. On this form, she’d wipe the journalist Steve Braunias off the table if he invites her to his pre-election ping pong challenge.

The inaugural media conference as leader was a long way from another media engagement, three months ago before a different press pack in less formal circumstances. As it happens, Braunias was her host at the press club lunch on behalf of the Wintec tertiary institution in Hamilton.

Ardern was the after-lunch speaker, flying solo politically but supported by her partner Clarke Gayford. Her performance that day in what turned out to be a peculiarly hostile environment was the opposite of today – defensive, emotional, heated, exasperated but in its own way instructive.

Even Braunias’s introduction, filled as it was with a celebrity roast of her appearances in Woman’s Day, hit raw nerves.

Then tensions arose from questions about two men, Andrew Little and Winston Peters, and about Ardern’s image and background in publicly-funded roles.

At that point she was having to defend her leader, Little, which she did stoically. Did he dull her shine? “No, part of my job is standing alongside Andrew helping people get to know him.” Was it a problem outpolling him in the preferred Prime Minister ratings? “Andrew tends to focus on the party vote. Because of my unusual name, I tend to pop up a little.”

How’d she feel about being labelled a “show pony”? “If you rally against that too hard you’re treated as humourless. So I’ve chosen not to react.” Did she feel like she was a winner in a loser party? She had a man above her who was less competent than her but she had refused to roll him. What did that say about her? Could she sum up, in one sentence, the mission of the Labour Party? 

The challenges, personal and gritty, came thick and fast. At first Ardern seemed ill at ease and there were doubts from the diners about how she was handling it all. To one question asking if Winston Peters was racist, she paused for a click or two too long before saying “I think Winston know’s what he’s doing”. Much later in the session, after she had decided to take on some of the incoming fire, she elaborated: “I’ll tell you why I paused – I truly do have to ask is he genuinely racist. I don’t know him well enough.”

To a question about why voters should go for professional politicians like her who’d lived off the public purse – and what she made of the anti-politicians like Trump – she was refreshingly undiplomatic: “What – so you elect a professional arsehole, instead?”

It was raw questioning which put her under concerted pressure. Towards the end, Braunias said there was time for one more question. Ardern half-quipped: “Do we have to?”

But what was fascinating was how she got better as it went on. As she confronted the challenge, she became more convincing. The media, who were mainly from beyond the parliamentary press gallery, seemed to relish the test of a politician who had come so far, so young. 

It is fair to say Ardern looked a little rattled but she’d risen to the occasion and probably won some regard for standing her and Labour’s ground. 

Today’s press conference was held in the immediate afterglow of being anointed leader by her peers. The press gallery was never going to be as openly snarky, as free-range, as the Hamilton crowd.

Ardern promised relentless optimism and that “this team is about to run the campaign of our lives”. She anticipated detailed questions on what policies she’d change by declaring a 72-hour pause for herself, Davis and the team to “take stock” and hinted at a change of emphasis when that period was over.

“There’ll be nothing blancmange about this campaign”, she said, verbally subtweeting broadcaster Mike Hosking who had used the term pejoratively of Labour the previous day.

The first question was from veteran radio journalist Barry Soper (who earlier in the day had speculated that Ardern’s lack of appetite for the role had ruled her out) on whether she would be ready to be Prime Minister if she won in just a couple of months. “Yes,” she said, returning serve, adding that the caucus certainly thought so. To a similar question later in the presser, she flatly turned the doubt back on a reporter: “Would you like to tell me why you don’t think I can?”

A couple of times she deployed Clark’s best stern look, and repeated the Clark line of 2008 that there was “No Plan B” which contemplated losing the election.

On the inevitable questioning about how she could raise Labour’s polling and what could happen if it stayed marooned on 24 percent, Ardern said with confidence: “We are not going to come out of the election with 24 percent.”

But it was a well-rounded performance, with time for head-back laughter – defusing self-deprecation: “I don’t think I’ve been described as a ‘lick of new paint’ before” and a joke about liking single malt whisky when asked what she might have in common with Peters. There was effusive praise for Little, Davis and her mainly front-bench colleagues surrounding her.

Ardern has publicly worried in the past about the burdens of the job and the stress she would feel about possibly letting people down in it. Told she’d said she didn’t want it, she simply replied that she’d just said yes to the worst job in politics – Leader of the Opposition. She felt ready and supported.

At both occasions Ardern was agile and to the point. This time she wasn’t having to defend someone else’s performance or defend herself for not being leader. It was an opening moment in the limelight rather than the shadows. 

One press conference does not an election campaign make. But when it was over, I received a text from a non-partisan, usually unimpressionable observer at Parliament. It read: “Shit, she’s good. English might be in trouble here.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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